Episode 12 – The Problem is bigger than the System with Ahmed Elbokhari
We discovered a big problem post revolution
TRANSCRIPT [Translated by: Amani Abonowara]
Tariq: Welcome to Da Miri podcast, episode 12. I’m Tariq Al-Meri, your host. You guys have been endlessly asking me about the podcast I’m listening to and suggest us to check it out, so here I am, sharing with you a podcast that is quite unique. It’s a very special podcast, it has all the needed elements for a good podcast (A story that is rich with knowledge and concepts from our reality) This podcast is called Jasadi that is produced by Kerning Cultures Network. There are guests in each episode sharing their most intimate stories and concepts about their bodies and their relationship with it, as well as the role it plays in their lives.
Guest 1 in Jasadi podcast: Each body cell in my body was shaking.
Guest 2 in Jasadi podcast: I feel like I want to leave this body of mine.
Tariq: You’ll get to hear different stories about adapting with your born in template with all its pros and cons. You can find Jasadi Podcast on any podcast app you have, you can also use the link in the description below. Good? Good.
I’ll be trying something rather new in this episode, and we’ll see if you like it or not. I’ll be setting a fire from the beginning of our conversation.
Fire sounds in the background.
Tariq: Don’t worry! This isn’t a real fire, it’s just the sound of it. It’s like the sound from a fireplace in the background that would calm you down and make the conversation even more interesting.
This week’s episode is very deep. My guest had taken a four hours journey on his way to my place, and will take another four to go back to his. All of this to have this conversation with me… I am really thankful for his efforts. I heard of my guest after much fanfare was created on platforms like facebook about him and what he had written. My guest is Ahmed Elbokhari. He wrote his novel “Kashan” which a part of was published in “Sun on Closed Windows / Shams ‘ala Nawafidh Mughlaqa” . Ahmed has other novels like “Alkhidr” and is currently writing a new novel. He also is a founding member of Tanweer Movement. We will talk about his writings and his early days. His life back in Libya, and how did leaving to Germany affect him. His hobbies, his obsession with freedom and the important discovery he reached to after the Libyan revolution.
I have to give you a fair warning before we start. This episode include some words and descriptions related to some situations and events that might be shocking/ not acceptable. Please use your headphones if you’re listening anywhere near children, and if you have a sensitive medical situation, please skip those parts. Let’s start!
Tariq: Should we start with the song? As usual? What do you think? We’ll only listen to one minute of it.
Ahmed: Sure, let’s hear it.
Tariq: Awesome. Let me direct the speaker towards you, it’s a bit of an intense song. It’s not like the usual songs you listen to, the cool ones. Cool.
A moroccan country song plays.
Tariq: What do you think?
Ahmed: The tunes are by a famous American singer, I cannot recall his name right now.
Tariq: By the way, I didn’t connect it to anyone. I just said that this music is familiar. You, on the other hand, were reminded of the same exact original song.
Ahmed: It’s not about the tunes.
Tariq: I think it’s James Brown’s I Feel Good.
Ahmed: I Feel Good, yeah.
Tariq: That one is smoother, I think.
I Feel Good by James Brown plays.
Ahmed: Yeah, they changed it a bit.
Tariq: The one I played is a bit rough. You never heard something with this accent? This rhythm?
Ahmed: Nope, but I heard lots of western songs with Arabic songs.
Tariq: New developed music.
Ahmed: Yeah, developed tunes, I also think that-
Tariq: It’s like you can already imagine the album.
Tariq: It gives these old vibes.
Tariq: You listen and ask yourself “When was this even invented? What is this shift that just happened?” The lyrics are very short as well. A word or two that describe what humans go through.
Ahmed: I didn’t focus much on the lyrics, but there had happened before the western music’s effect on our Arab region and other regions. Music is an international language with an effect that sometimes surpasses its region and origin and cultures. There are many experiments on that. The best example to all of this is the reggae genre and how it surpassed South and Central Africa to us here in North Africa.
Tariq: It’s originally from South Africa? Or was it Jamaica? Or is it a mix?
Ahmed: I don’t know exactly, but it’s from Jamaica and South Africa.
Tariq: It travelled as well.
Ahmed: Yes! It did.
Tariq: To those Libyan Iveco vans.
Ahmed: Indeed, and there were many reggae bands at the time like “The White Bird”. This music accompanied us for quite some time back then.
Tariq: Did you listen to them back then?
Ahmed: You basically were forced into that at the time, but you do get used to them and listen to them. There were some very beautiful songs though. The thing is, how did reggae become one of the most famous music genres in Libya? Why did it influence it more than Egypt or Tunisia? We probably were the only country that is very known for this music genre. There were many albums, many bands and even special dancing moves Libyan young people dance to these songs. There was a well known reggae dance as well. I cannot dance it right now!
Tariq: The way you talk about it made me imagine you dancing to this.
Tariq: Unfortunately, my Podcast listeners have to use their imagination as well. We cannot help you with that.
Ahmed: Exactly, and I’m sure they can imagine it very clearly.
Tariq: Awesome. Let’s start our usual introduction. It’s hard to imagine you entering a room without anyone not knowing you and what you wrote, but let us assume that you and I entered a room where there were about ten friendly people we’ll be having a nice conversation with, not a crowded room. Introduce yourself to them briefly. Who is Ahmed?
Ahmed: As easy as this question may seem, it’s a very hard one. I have to deal with this question a lot and even in the most casual ways, like creating an account on Facebook or Twitter, they ask about who you are right after your name, you know? So this is a question that I force myself into thinking about a lot. It’s hard. I’m a human being. I like to introduce myself as a human with a humanitarian identity, which needs to be defined and explained as well, but I consider humans as a bit of a composite creature that is made from various identities, stories and experiences. It’s hard to define yourself in words, but I can describe myself as a creator.
Tariq: Do you feel like it’s inappropriate to say it in Arabic?
Ahmed: خالق/ Khaliq (Creator). Humans have always thought of themselves as creatures, until they realized they are creators as well. They can create stories, novels, project… This is what I think describes me the most. I’m creating. When I say I’m a novelist, I like introducing myself as one, as a story creator.
Tariq: You also are passionate about this a lot. You create new characters from your own imagination, your experiences and those concepts that you want to dive in and invite other people to dive in with you as well. Is that why you focused on the word “creator”? Or can anyone who does a creative act (write a novel or draw a painting or play music) be called a creator?
Ahmed: I’m obsessed with freedom, or should I say that I’m obsessed with me being free. Humans are in a constant fight for their free will, and that is a fight that probably won’t reach an end. This is a philosophical concept that was discussed a lot. Do humans enjoy a complete free will or not? Still, this is what I’m obsessed with. When humans realized they can create, or be creative, they gain more access to freedom. I’ll give you an example: The more humans are able to end diseases or discover their bodies more and more genetically, they feel more in control with themselves, and when that happens, they gain more access to their freedom. This is all connected.
Tariq: We’re back to our starting point, you. You said your personality developed throughout a number of specific phases. What would you like us to discuss first? Should we start with where you are now? Or should we go back to a phase you see critical and move forward? What are those phases? And how did you organize them? How are they related to each other? Or are they separate? If you could, take us with you on this journey of yours.
Ahmed: Humans cannot set clear endings/ beginnings to each phase they go through. You can’t say you started at some point in a clear mathematical way. It is more of a cumulative issue, you know? It’s a continues maturity process. There are some events that changed my mindset, and my life in general, a lot. One of the factors in changing a mindset is leaving your own environment.
Ahmed: Because they’re used to a certain pattern, certain ideas, certain language and a certain lifestyle. It’s like you’re living in a box. When a person leaves this box and gets exposed to new ideas, new languages, new people, new cultures… that person will start looking at things differently, in a more matured way. One of the phases I went through was when I traveled to Egypt and studied there for 4 years. The Revolutions started as well, which I believe is an important phase to our generation. I witnessed parts of the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan revolutions.
Tariq: As in inside the countries?
Ahmed: Egypt, yeah. I followed the Tunisian revolution as soon as the protests took place and I witnessed a part of the Libyan revolution in Libya as well. I truly experienced the revolutions.
Tariq: What does this experience represent to you? Which category does this experience fall under now that it has passed and you matured after that period?
Ahmed: Look, I believe that these revolutions are purely political and are for the rights of people, but we happened to realize something…some people may have already known it but we discovered it during our revolution, and that fact is that our problem is way deeper that we had imagined.
Tariq: It’s not just a political system, or a strive for power.
Ahmed: It’s way deeper, deeper than a higher power or anything else…it’s too radical to be like that. Our issues are hundreds of years old, and it’s gotten deep into our roots. It’s not about a head of state that we remove from power in order for everything to be okay, but there are radical issues set very deep into our society and mindset… economical issues, cultural or social issues. We also realized that maybe, just maybe, a head of state isn’t worse that the society members.
Tariq: We realized this years after those events took place?
Ahmed: Yeah, we were young at the time and we didn’t look deep into the whole situation. Some people already knew all of this, we realized that years ago, many people talked about this and how it would happen.
Tariq: Like who? And what did they say?
Ahmed: Georges Tarabichi’s writings, Farag Foda’s and Mansour Boshnaf. Many told us that this isn’t what it looks like.
Tariq: We want to make it a bit simpler, not many people understand or know much about this case, I’m one of those people. What is the problem here?
Ahmed: The problem…
Tariq: Yes, what is it?
Ahmed: What is the problem…
Tariq: Or problems!
Ahmed: Exactly, it’s not just one, but many problems. Look, the problem is that even though all of this looks so deep and wrong, it’s still simple. Our problem starts with the language.
Tariq: What do you mean?
Ahmed: Our language itself… it hasn’t developed at all! Our speech and our words…
Tariq: When you say language, are you talking about Arabic language? Or is it our style of speech?
Ahmed: Language as a cultural beholder. There are quite many theories related to this matter, but there are two theories that are opposites: One theory says that language affects our culture and behaviors, the other theory says it’s the other way around. For example, if we take a word like “Bullying”, this word wasn’t around in a language, it’s a new word. Why wasn’t it around before? Is it because we were OK with the act of “bullying” we didn’t need to invent a word for it? But now that we are aware of this act and how dangerous it is-
Tariq: It had its own name.
Ahmed: It has its own name and it became a visible issue. All factors like language including cultures (and by cultures I mean religion, ideologies, traditions and such) all of this falls under languages. Economical issues play a part as well, and by that I’m talking about the economical system and our economical history. We have social issues too; and by social issues I mean the tribal system and how our social structure did not change at all… All of these factors are essential to what’s happening, and they need to be fixed.
Tariq: If I focus on language a bit more, I believe it’s one of the things that attracted me to you because of how you use it to talk about issues and the ways you play with it, how you invent your characters as well. The writing style you use sounds more like a conversation! Especially in the short stories you write or your Facebook posts. Why did you choose such an easy writing style? Is it an “in the moment” thing? Or like, ideas that hit you up in the same day or week? Is it because the way old Arabic words are spelled or written? Or maybe it’s because the ideas you have in mind best fit with an easy writing language (as in a Libyan accent)?
Ahmed: Maybe I do that unconsciously, especially with my short stories. All you care about with short stories is to deliver your ideas, while language isn’t what you want to shed light on. All you care about is to deliver a certain idea in the shortest way possible, because you know, those readers (especially facebook ones) aren’t like book readers. If a post takes more than three minutes to read, they won’t read it. They have to scroll. You have to focus on getting a reader’s attention from the very first few lines, in order for them to continue reading your post.
Tariq: It’s an essential part when writing in this section.
Ahmed: Yes, it has to have an upbeat rhythm as well. There are multiple writing techniques to get to your goals. I do some of them on purpose, while others simply come naturally.
Tariq: You said something while we were preparing before this discussion, you said that you write because you either want to discover something or you want to shed more light on how the other party’s mind works. Could you explain this more? How did you get to this conclusion? Is it a goal of yours or does it come naturally when you’re writing? Especially with novels.
Ahmed: Whether I’m writing a short story or a novel, I find it amusing to look at things from various perspectives. I always try to focus on the fact that there are multiple facts around us, and that is what I did with Kashan, to people who read it, I mention that in Its ending. In the last lines I told my readers that maybe all of th3/3 events didn’t happen at all. Same applies on the short stories I wrote, I always try to show different points of view on the case I plan on discussing. What if the character that was in control wasn’t anymore?
Tariq: You flip the switch to give an opportunity of understanding!
Ahmed: I allow my characters to express themselves and I allow multiple points of view to see what turns would have these characters taken if they didn’t take the one they are at now. That’s what giving the minorities a voice mean. This is one of the concepts I focus a lot on, the underdogs, or minorities. How no matter how many people believe in a certain concept while there is another dominate concept in the society they’re a part of. This dominant concept will not allow yours to reach the surface and you won’t be able to express your own opinions.
Tariq: Why would you focus on minorities though? Their feelings and their ideas… were you one at some point? Or are you dedicating your effort to put yourself in their shoes in order for the society to be a whole (after understanding what its minorities are going through)?
Ahmed: I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been a part of minorities for most my days.
Tariq: Are you talking about school? Or your days in the neighborhood?
Ahmed: both, and with my ideologies as well. Everything, really.
Tariq: You’re not a minority then, you’re an outsider. You don’t fit into all of those ideologies or places because you have certain beliefs or concepts that if you share, people might think you’re different.
Ahmed: This includes even the slightest events, sometimes. Maybe you’re watching a certain show-
Ahmed: Or let’s say that most people are watching this famous series, and you’re watching an underground one; you feel like you want to share your ideas about this series with someone!
Tariq: You won’t find many people who watch it.
Ahmed: Yeah. Somehow, I was a minority. I also believed that when minorities can share their points of view and are provided with a platform to do that, that’s what freedom really is about. That’s what it means to be free. This takes me back to the passion towards freedom and to be free. This passion gives me an euphoric feeling that is as much of a right to anyone else as it is to me.
Tariq: It’s not for a certain group of people only.
Tariq: I feel the same way when it comes to football, for example. I don’t watch football nor do I follow its news, so when I look at big fans of a certain football club, I feel like they’re talking in a foreign language that I don’t understand (and I also don’t have any interest in understanding). Are you into football?
Ahmed: You reminded me of something; I don’t know if it is just me or many people feel it too, but whenever I watch a football game, I tend to cheer for the weaker side, the underdog team.
Ahmed: The team that no one is giving attention to. I sympathize with it.
Tariq: They need your cheering.
Ahmed: Exactly, you sympathize with it and wish for them to have a surprise win, end the stereotype of them losing or something. That’s the thing, ending a stereotype.
Tariq: So you are a football fan.
Tariq: Speaking of stereotypes, people nowadays are now obsessed with any idea that comes out to them…if they don’t understand it or don’t like it for whatever reason, they always go back to the purpose of the writing. It’s not professional criticism by any matter, but they always go back to the reason behind the writing, they always ask about the agendas behind it all. It’s like everything you do has to fall under the rules of success. What do you think about this? You don’t write whatever you write to score a goal or something, or to be placed in some category somewhere. Do you take that into account? Or is it none of your business?
Ahmed: This comes with a bunch of other factors, but I don’t believe in how “art is a message” and such
Tariq: I invited you into this interview and thought you’d say stuff like “I use art to deliver a message and I want people to hear me out” and such things.
Ahmed: You’ve come to the wrong person! I don’t think art is a message.
Ahmed: Art is art. Art could be just for the sake of entertainment. You might present something that a person spends three or four hours on to enjoy and that’s it. I don’t want to say that I encourage this type of art, but it also shouldn’t have a hidden message all the time. Art shouldn’t just be here to lead its audience towards the right path.
Tariq: You don’t care about this side of your audience.
Ahmed: It’s not that, I just don’t want to be my audience’s tutor, teacher or father.
Ahmed: I want to give them something that they can relate to, enjoy, laugh at, cry at. I don’t want to show them what to do and what to not do.
Tariq: You talked about something else that you’re passionate about, when since you do consider the audience when you write, you create characters and scenarios that sometimes have to do with reality or events you lived through and had affected you. Sometimes you put these events all together or you might bring them to pieces. The concept of “mind games/ mind manipulation” is something you definitely are passionate about. This is the first time I hear it in Arabic, maybe someone who’s more familiar with it could translate it better. Why is this something you find fun?
Ahmed: I enjoy making those mind games because I personally find them fun. When I see an artwork or a novel that surprises me or changes my point of view towards something because it includes mind games, I feel like-
Tariq: It consumes your whole mind and confuses it until it has your full attention.
Ahmed: It truly affects me. It touches any previous thought I had towards this artwork or novel or even a story. It’s a nice thing to shake and play with other people’s ideologies about something every once in a while and play with their minds.
Ahmed: To surprise them and make them understand that there is more than one point of view to look at an issue from, to shed light on concepts they might not have considered before. This takes us back to the concept of art as in entertainment method. It’s not a bad idea to do so by playing mind games with readers.
Tariq: At the same time, it does have a message though. You want readers to understand that the stereotype (social stereotypes for example) can be changed and looked at from another perspective, or be replaced. One of the things you obviously consider when you write is to help your readers understand that they shouldn’t believe anything they hear, read or see. Not everything on the outside is a fact.
Ahmed: Exactly, there is no such thing as “the ultimate truth” out there, in conclusion. You have to think about everything and look at things from various perspectives, listen to more than one party to know what’s going on. You can give your opinions on the matter afterwards, or if you don’t, it’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to have an opinion about any case in the world!
Ahmed: The most important thing when it comes to creating an opinion is to look at things with a clear head, with no bias towards any party at all.
Tariq: That’s a little hard. We’re full of biases, that is how our minds are programmed.
Ahmed: That is why I always talk about pursuing that. I know it’s hard to do that, but that shouldn’t mean we quit trying! When someone complains about how hard that is, should that mean we quit trying? Or try even more? That’s what our purpose is. That is what our journey all about. That’s the fun in it, to try and to resist.
Tariq: I don’t want to spoil the ending of your novel, Kashan, to people who haven’t read it just yet, but you said that its ending is quite sharp, but you also said something that slightly provokes the readers into thinking that what if this isn’t the ending of the story? I just remembered that I didn’t ask you about this yesterday! Did you start writing Kashan from its ending? Or its beginning? Which couple of pages were your first?
Ahmed: I already knew Kashan’s ending as soon as I started writing it.
Tariq: But It wasn’t the first thing you wrote.
Ahmed: Nope, but the ending was quite clear to me in my mind. I had intended this last trick you mentioned from the beginning as well, but I started writing from the very first chapter. I already had a clear vision on the characters and which paths they’ll take.
Tariq: There were some chapters from Kashan that were featured in the book “Sun on Closed Windows”, but Kashan had already won an award in 2010 and was published in 2012, it had its own life and story before 2017. Before we get into detail with the book itself, there is this thing that I always go back to, you create characters, and you once told me that this is the most beautiful character you created; why? What’s so special about it? What makes it so beautiful? There are details that attract readers but aren’t necessarily promoting the story, for those whom are listening to us and planning on buying the book, don’t be mad at us!
Ahmed: The way his character is all about being a “Bad boy / Gangster” with his choice of words and everything was what caused all this drama around it.
Tariq: What was the character’s name?
Ahmed: His name…I don’t know…
Tariq: Did you forget it?
Ahmed: Yeah I cannot recall it right now.
Tariq: Did you name him?
Ahmed: Yeah, he does have a name.
Tariq: The thing is that you told me that whenever you read the book, you always skip the parts this character has. You avoid it all the time and now you forgot his name.
Ahmed: I just cannot recall it for now.
Tariq: So Kashan isn’t any character’s name or related to any character?
Ahmed: Yeah, it’s a made up name. This gangster’s personality required lots of thinking into it to write. He’s so real in the ugliest way possible. I had lots of clashes with people with such personalities in reality, and that wasn’t such a nice experience. This character is based on my bad memories, and because of that, it sounded so real and deep. This type of personality or character is definitely affecting our lives. I have had my own share of bullying at school, and I wouldn’t say that it’s a huge problem, but it really does exist in our society. People might not notice it but for people in that age (Primary school, middle school and even highschool). Many kids are affected by this act, I wouldn’t call it “bullying” because it sounds too tender compared to the act, perhaps abuse? Or a gangsters’ act? We need to find a tougher way of saying it.
Ahmed: Yeah, Domestic violence or domination.
Tariq: Someone who has power over someone else.
Ahmed: This character develops later. I used to live in “Hay Alruss” and behind us there was “Hay Almkhatsha” , and that reflects how much I came across people with such a gangster personality. That is why it’s one of the most amazing characters I’ve ever written, even though I could’ve written it with another perspective that could’ve done it more justice, but it was one out of four personalities so it had its space.
Tariq: Some people might misunderstand you describing this personality as “beautiful” while according to what you said, it’s the last thing this character should be called. How is it beautiful? Does its beauty lay in the meaning behind it? In how deep it is?
Ahmed: It’s very alive, and very real. You can really feel this character and that’s what’s so beautiful about it.
Tariq: I understand.
Ahmed: No matter how bad this character is, its existence is socially justified and cannot be blamed, somehow. It is the result of a number of factors that affected our social structure, leading for such characters to appear. I didn’t portray this character as an absolute evil one, but I showed its weakness. Even though it practices its abuse on a certain group of people, like women, for example; nevertheless, this character is also being abused by other higher people. It also feels like an underdog. Many issues in the society played a part to create this character.
Tariq: Let’s go back to the period in between 2010-2016; how did Kashan do? What did it go through and what were the reactions towards it? Are you literary pleased with it and the interactions it’s got?
Ahmed: I’ve always considered Kashan as a primary experiment, and I still think that I’m trying different ways of writing, even with Al-Khidr. I’m still trying to find the writing style that fits me best and the writing school in which I truly belong to. Kashan is my first writing attempt. Many people liked it, others criticized it. Some genuinely liked it, some really dug deep into it. I know that art shouldn’t be loved by everyone. Sometimes we fall in love with great master arts whilst others don’t like it at all. Sometimes we look at things and see what’s really special about it, while others look at it as a simple silly thing.
Tariq: Taste plays a part in this, and each individual’s taste is different from another’s.
Ahmed: Yes! Some people read deep and polite literature and come to find the things that I write (Take Kashan as an example) aren’t their cup of tea because it’s a thriller entertainment and vise versa. Many people liked and recommended it. I am very open to all opinions on my work and I am very happy to receive criticism on my work, because it helps me develop my experience with writing. It is said that whenever a writer finishes a work of his, he starts to feel like he could’ve done better. From 2010 and up till this day, I wouldn’t ignore Kashan, but I’d say I moved on from it.
Tariq: You haven’t talked about what happened in it exactly, its social life and the reactions it got, 2017… maybe you did write all about that but you never mentioned what happened afterwards. What do you think of the reactions it got?
Ahmed: I thought they overreacted. I didn’t see it coming at all, not this way, at least. For someone to choose certain pages of this book and share it on facebook. If I ever thought this would happen, I would’ve expected it. I never imagined this. Just like everyone, I was seriously surprised. I woke up the next day and found out the mess that’s going on.
Tariq: You haven’t had your official reaction on that reaction though; in the press, I mean.
Ahmed: I don’t think it’s worthy of that. In my opinion, I wrote something that I felt.
Ahmed: Something that I had no problem with, and that is my right! I have the right to write and express myself. There was nothing worthy of a reaction, in my point of view.
Tariq: As a result, and as we said earlier, that doesn’t matter at all. The most important thing is to write, but the result was the people’s reactions and interactions, their messages and their positive and negative feedback. This could be seen as a win for the book! It hit the public’s feelings, went straight to their ideologies and made them think of those missing parts in the society. Gazi said in one of the previous episodes that you considered this as a positive thing. You wrote this and that is that.
Ahmed: Any issues that are being discussed amongst the society is a positive thing; even if it had many people differing on the issue itself. As long as no one encourages any party to do any violent acts like murder, I don’t mind it and I fully accept it. As long as no-one’s life is taken and no-one is being tortured for such a thing, a debate on this is OK.
Tariq: What do you remember about that day? Tell us what happened as if you were telling me a story. You said you found messages about it?
Ahmed: I woke up finding lots of notifications on my phone, and many messages. I pressed on one randomly, one that was from a friend, and he was like “Wake up! Everyone is talking about you.” And all I could think of was “What did I do?”
Tariq: Where and why is that happening?
Ahmed: He was talking about facebook, and I slowly realized it.
Tariq: You understood it.
Ahmed: Yeah, I slowly did, one detail by one. In the beginning, people didn’t understand what’s going on. They thought that “Sun on Closed Windows” was a novel. They started asking about who wrote this. They found names like “Khalid Almtawa’a, Layla Almaghrebi”. After about 24 hours, they understood that this is a chapter from a novel. Actually, I’m 100% sure there are still a number of people who do not know that this is a part from a novel that’s called Kashan. They found “Sun on Closed Windows” and found “Ahmed Elbokhari” and decided on attacking him.
Tariq: They didn’t understand what was going on, but they started attacking you anyways.
Ahmed: When someone starts to talk about such a thing on facebook, nothing would stop it.
Tariq; They have no breaks.
Ahmed: It only is spreader faster by the minute. It’s like a snowball, it only grows bigger. Even people who don’t usually share their opinions feel some sort of pressure into saying it. They have to choose a side, with or against what’s going on. He has to swear with those who swear… it’s like a wave that only grows higher. A moral pressure is created at the time as well. People start thinking that if they don’t say bad words about me at that moment, they aren’t morally good. You have to use swear words like prayers at the time.
Tariq: I don’t know if it’s the way you describe it, or it’s the energy around us, but something reminded me of an old play by Adel Imam where he said “Everyone who is anyone is hitting me”
Tariq: The way he describes it, no one knows why are they even acting like this.
Ahmed: Exactly. Like I said, beware the anger of an audience.
Tariq: But, how did you feel about it? It isn’t just notifications, it grew bigger than that.
Ahmed: I was really annoyed. It wasn’t just me, the writers who were featured alongside me on the book were also gone after and threatened; my family was also brought up as well. It was a trend inside the whole country! I thought that they’d let to go after a few days, they did not. People talked about it for months, statements regarding it were released by the ministry of culture and militias were shutting places down and capturing people. It was very dangerous. I cannot lie and say I wasn’t bothered by what happened and didn’t care about it all, absolutely not. It was a very hard period of time and I wasn’t in a good mental state of mind. That’s a completely natural reaction to what’s happened.
Tariq: Indeed, what happened wasn’t expected at all. Even if you’ve written it on the same year of a year before and for the sake of the novel itself, it wouldn’t have caused all of this but you wrote it in 2010! Seven years ago! You probably haven’t read it in ages and you don’t even remember the details about it.
Ahmed: I only remember the general ones. I haven’t thought about the mess it has caused at all!
Tariq: That’s because there were no alarms to warn you when you’ve written it or when it was printed and ready to be published.
Ahmed: Exactly. That and the fact that this is a first of its time experience here in Libya. No one would have warned me about the possibilities if such a thing was written and published. I was shocked.
Tariq: You also mentioned that there were as much positive reactions as the negative ones. Was that on the same time with the messages you’ve received? Or was it a while after?
Ahmed: Yeah, I don’t want to only shed light on the negative part of this experience, there were many bad ones that included threats and terror; nevertheless, there were many positive ones as well. Not everyone wrote it on their walls but they have sent supportive messages behind the scenes to me saying things like “we’re right here with you, you’re courageous for speaking out” and such. There were people who had my back. I was not alone.
Tariq: You described what happened as if you put your finger into a glass of water and moved it around in circles, as if you caused chaos in a stable area. Why would you describe it that way?
Ahmed: It was like a whirlwind; it caused a huge shock amongst the society. This probably was the first time for such a thing to happen, but it allowed other people to do such things. When such an event or an accident happen once or twice in a society, it slowly becomes normalized. The Libyan society starts to look at art with a sense of neutrality.
Tariq: They get used to different things.
Ahmed: They look at it with no prejudice.They start to look at it as an artwork in itself, with no tensions towards it.
Tariq: Besides, each work of art has its audience and fans. It’s not dedicated for anyone or everyone. I don’t think you wanted your writings to be for everyone, your work has its fans that are probably a lot, but it doesn’t mean that the whole country has to like it!
If we talk more about the concept of “Normalizing” something and exposing people to certain things until they do get used to them; the character you’ve created, the gangsters as you call them, the character that’s telling the story itself (from what I’ve understood, you haven’t set any dimensions for that one) and correct me if I’m wrong; finally, the Islamic character and the atheist (As you said, this is the first time in the Libyan literature for such a character to be created, right?)
Ahmed: As far as I know, yeah. I tried my best to present characters that aren’t talked about, ones existing in our reality right now, modern ones.
Tariq: Ones we’ve lived with and still are. Not just characters we’ve heard of from other countries , but in Libya as well.
Ahmed: Those characters exist around us, but many might not have heard of them because they’re underground, or are existing in certain secret gatherings and places. You might not meet such character in real life, but they are there! And that is one of the things I wanted to shed light on throughout my novel. People need to understand that our society is really diverse and it’s not made of one tone people only. Perhaps people believed that back when there was a central authority that forced a certain type of ideologies that consisted of one concept to follow. They force you into believing that this is what’s right.
Tariq: We’re the perfect model for others.
Ahmed: They convince you of how good we are…We’re the The Muslim Arab State.
Tariq: The Great Socialist state.
Ahmed: Exactly. This is how we are, and our ideologies should all be in the same shape one way or another. We have to cancel this mindset. We’re diversified and we have people with extreme ideologies, from those with the left wings ideologies to the rights; nonetheless, we’ve got Moderates as well. Presenting such characters in an artwork gives you some sort of pliancy, especially if you present them in a way far from the Superficial stereotype. You don’t discuss these characters based on their stereotypes. You don’t necessarily show atheists as evil guys, or Islamics as terrorists. These personalities are made of flesh and blood. They have good and bad within them. They own their own ideas and ideologies and beliefs. They have their own life experiences. A viewer should look at these things with a critical and analytical point of view, and that is the ultimate goal. To analyze what we see in a critical and analytical manner, away from romanticizing such issues. Romanticizing such events is done be spreading the idea of the ultimate good, the ultimate evil and how good shall always surpass and win over the evil.
Tariq: Haven’t you even written such Hollywoodian scenarios?
Ahmed: Even Hollywood don’t do this anymore.
Tariq: Not even when you started your journey with writing? There must have been some cliche piece of work you did.
Ahmed: Not really, I don’t think I’ve done that before.
Tariq: You’ve always been an outsider with your own points of view!
Ahmed: I guess I am.
Tariq: That’s a really good thing, to know your goals.
Let’s talk about Alkhidr. What could you tell us about this novel? How does it represent the current reality and how is it shift compared to Kashan?
Ahmed: Alkhidr was enumerated the same way as Kashan. Each character tells the story from its own point of view and perspective, just like Kashan. Alkhidr discusses different issues and different processing methods. Alkhidr can be understood on three levels. There is the first layer which includes the normal story of it, the second layer and the third.
Tariq: Are there female characters in Alkhidr? I believe that there was a main character (I wouldn’t call it main in that way) that connected between Kashan’s characters; is there a main character in Alkhidr for a woman?
Ahmed: There was a pivotal character in Kashan that eventually connected all the four main characters, while with Alkhidr, there is more than one character, if not as much as the main ones.
Tariq: There is a gender equality.
Ahmed: Yes, but I don’t put that in mind while writing. I focus on whether this character deserves to have a lot of space to be discussed and what does it really represent.
Tariq: But it’s not about discrimination, it’s about what the story needs to be perfectly narattated?
Ahmed: Yes! It’s about the processing itself. Sometimes the artwork needs to be based on male characters only, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good or bad, this is simply about what the concept requires from the character.
Tariq: Going back to the reactions Kashan got you… the price that is to be paid for freedom of speech for you or the other writers featured on Sun on Closed Windows, and now after a few years of that accident… how do you feel about the price you and some other colleagues had to pay because of the book and genuinely speaking as well? When someone expresses a point of view, not usually is such a mess taken into account because it doesn’t usually happen, though it did. How do you feel about what you and your fellow writers had to go through?
Ahmed: I believe that nothing is worth dying for, or tortured because. No cause whatsoever deserves to be harmed for, the safety of a person comes first. Having an anxious soul that acts like an electron (you cannot remain in a nesting mode, you have to do something about something! You have to express yourself. Sometimes, when you express yourself or when you’re still trying to do so, when you’re trying to use your freedom of speech and especially when you have a platform to do so like writing or making a podcast a using a visual mains of communication…
Tariq: I like how you mentioned the podcasting thing, thanks for the free advertising! You could tell them the name of the podcast and where to listen from! By the way, where do you listen to the podcast?
Tariq: The Podcast, where do you listen to it from? On your mobile? Which application?
Ahmed: People would think I’m a capitalist when they know this, but I listen through Spotify.
Tariq: Wow, this information is just…I have no words.
Ahmed: Haha, I’m half capitalist, my other half is a socialist. Anyways… sometimes when you try to express yourself, you might end up messing with stuff and breaking stuff by mistake, and that could cause you some issues. This is collateral damage, because when you’re simply practicing your freedom, you may cause some problems.
Tariq: Did you make new boundaries to yourself because of that? Or do you simply not care and keep on expressing what you have in mind? With no care about the damage? You cannot not express yourself no matter what happened before… but would you do things differently from now on?
Ahmed: A miscalculation always occur. Even after the incident with Kashan, I tell myself that no such thing would happen again and that this time would be different and for a different audience. The thing is, not every experiment is necessarily similar to the next one. Each experiment comes with different circumstances. You cannot expect what would happen, but you also cannot stop yourself from having a little control over yourself-
Ahmed: -Due to some circumstances you had to go through. It might be hard at first, but things do go back to normal after a little while and you start to seriously think about trying things again. Personally, It’s very hard for me to have control over myself.
Tariq: Yeah… I remember this weird thing, it’s a long gone memory… I remember I was heading home one summer back when I used to study in the USA, and one of my cousins was friends with Mr. Zwawi’s son (the famous cartoonist) and I remember that I was very passionate about this, I was looking for Libyan characters that are working on such thing to host on a podcast (This was in 2010, I’ve always thought about having a podcast).
We arrived to his place, he was retired at the time. We chatted for a little while, while he was showing us some files and I remember that I asked him something… I don’t know how did I ask that question but he understood it immediately. I asked on whether he had boundaries when making his art or not, are there things he cannot discuss? Things he is passionate about changing? He told me that he takes it step by step… he pushes and pushes step by step until he realized when to stop. He made boundaries for himself even though no one came up to him and told him to. I don’t think that’s how everyone work. It’s hard to be the thinker, the creator and the one who hold you accountable for actions at the same time. That’ll cause you an annoying identity crisis that is hard to deal with. What do you think of this standard though? To be your own watcher, your own police?
Ahmed: Well, look, sometimes those boundaries or red lines don’t come from the outside due to certain circumstances or events you had to go through, or private matters that you don’t want to discuss right now…
Tariq: Sometimes that could be related to the way you were raised or grew up, school as well… ideologies that were shoved down your throat without you knowing it.
Ahmed: Exactly! Sometimes it’s about those private issues that writing about would harm no one but you. You choose the right time to move on past this. Perhaps you cannot get over those boundaries today, but tomorrow is a different day!
Ahmed: It’s not about having no boundaries, or getting over them in a matter of seconds, but I believe that a person is the one who decides whether that is or that is not a red line for himself/herself; no one should decide that for you.
Tariq: We talked about whether what happened with you before would change anything… You kind of said that you don’t regret any of it yesterday.
Ahmed: Of course. Regretting something means you did something wrong, and I don’t believe I did anything wrong…that is why I do not regret it, and if I could go back in time, I’d do the same things over again. Not regretting doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from what happened and work on creating a better, more developed experience the next time. Perhaps you’d even do things in a more collisional way!
Tariq: You don’t regret doing what you did, but you obviously are up to no good!
Tariq: Fuel…I love using this word! What is your fuel? What fuel motivates you to write more and more? Long and short facebook posts, novels and stories…
Some people come up with one good idea and make something out of it but that’s all what they’ve got. They make nothing for the next 20 years and It’s simply a one hit wonder. What keeps you going? We’ve mentioned some of them but what is the thing that motivates you to not stop when you feel down or bored of your art? What reminds you of the importance of what you make? That this is what you are? What triggers the ideas within you?
Ahmed: The fun I get when I create. The pursuing journey towards my passion for freedom. To work better on myself in order to come up with better things.
Tariq: To challenge yourself.
Ahmed: Challenge yourself by coming up with something superior to what you’ve managed to come up with before. I don’t want to lie to you and say that I write for myself and such… I find it very amusing to hear what my readers and people receiving the artwork have to say. Creating a whole world out of nothing for someone to come and read all about, dive deep into and come to tell you that what you created was fascinating. It’s beautiful when someone comes and tells you how fun it was for them to dive into the world you’ve managed to create with all its characters… for them to tell you that they finished reading your work and are feeling like they had fun right inside of their minds. This reaction makes me feel like… like you won something amazing. It’s an euphoric feeling. To make something out of nothing is pure delight.
Tariq: Out of all the possible artistic and creative means of creation, why writing? Did writing choose you? Do you have certain writings that made you choose this path or did it choose you? Did you have other options? Perhaps you were influenced by a certain role model in your life like relatives that are writers? Why does Elbokhari write?
Ahmed: Because at first, he was a reader. I read a lot and we had our own small library at home that included magazines and stories and such.
Tariq: I assume that encouragements were only found at home? You didn’t receive any encouragement at school.
Ahmed: Absolutely. There wasn’t a library at all. My mom and dad bought me magazines like Majed each Wednesday, Sameer as well… things started to develop as I grew up of course. In conclusion, I did lots of reading. You read something and it overwhelms you, so you start to feel jealous. You unconscious starts wondering on why don’t you create such a thing as well? You have everything this writer has. Why can’t I make my own worlds? There are also things you’d be wanting to read but it hasn’t been created yet. You want to read a certain type of stories or a story that discusses a certain concept, but you cannot find it anywhere so you have to make it up yourself!
Tariq: When did you start thinking like that? When did you start thinking about your ability of creating whatever world you want? When did you realize the power of creativity that you have? Was it while at school? At what age?
Ahmed: Middle school, I think.
Tariq: Quite early.
Ahmed: Yeah. At that age you do more of an imitation than creating. You’re imitating stuff, but afterwards you slowly start to create your own short stories and such simple stuff.
Tariq: I see. In the field of creativity, if you are passionate about a project, whether it’s documentary or any other sort of project; there are certain places you could go to for financial support. They provide a financial coverage for an artist during his/her artistic journey. With Kashan, you didn’t think you’d be making a book with a financial outcome… You didn’t consider asking for help from such institutions. You wrote Kashan because you wanted to write something, but genuinely speaking… how could you work and write and put lots of efforts into it with no financial outcome? How do you deal with this issue?
Ahmed: It’s simple, if there was a market for this artistic matter where literary works are being bought and sold, you would be selling your books and you’ll eventually financially depending on this. Since there is no such thing, a writer would be doing this for fun, or because it’s a hobby or to achieve goals that aren’t by any means financial.
Tariq: You have to change your goals.
Ahmed: Yes, but with Kashan, after it had won the 2010 award-
Tariq: Which award? We haven’t talked about that.
Ahmed: The Ministry Of Culture held this award for short stories and novels and such. Kashan got the second place. It should’ve been printed and published after the revolution started. One day, I got a phone call from Nahla Alarabi (a dear friend and a writer) she told me about the proposal by Alruaad publishing house and how Kashan should be published alongside her novel and everyone was excited to work on two novels. I agreed and went to meet up with the publisher, we signed everything and it was printed and all. We still had the marketing and the market study as well as the distribution process and let us not forget about the low sells record and the lack of readers around. It was complicated. Even the writers who are financially dependent on writing, ones who depend on their novels and stories solely are very rare in the region ever since writing was discovered! They are barely there. It is very difficult in the western world.
Tariq: I don’t remember the very first time I stumbled into it but, let’s talk about Tanweer Movement. When someone finds a familiar institution for example, they can categorize it (an organization, an activism movement) But I couldn’t categorize it because I don’t know much about it since I already was involved in many other activities back in Tripoli. Could you tell me more about it? What is your role within it? What was it about and what does it work on now? Why are you a part of Tanweer? I don’t know much about that.
Ahmed: Tanweer Movement was founded by a group of people in 2013, what brought them all together was their similar ideologies. We held quite many events and activities at the time. The Movement, like any living creature, started to evolve and develop its ideologies more and more, people left and people joined this movement… In conclusion, the Movement stopped its work in 2015 due to some circumstances but was brought back to life with the help of people who managed to travel abroad to resume its activities.
Tanweer Movement is, well… if you’re familiar with the European history, you’d understand the name of the Movement and why is it here, but even if you don’t have any idea about that, I can conclude Tanweer in this definition: It is a Movement that aims to create a humanitarian society that encourages and defends equality, a Movement that becomes a voice for the minorities; a society where justice, freedom and human rights are there. Those are our main principles.
Tariq: Do you have a practical plan to create this society? Or do you work on enlightening members of the society to understand more on how should things around be?
Ahmed: We do have our own point of view when it comes to the solution, or the beginning of it, but we can be seen as an open source program. We’re not a rigid Movement. We are a space where people could add or change into, as long as it is under one concept: No exclusion to anyone.
Tariq: No matter who the other party is.
Ahmed: Absolutely, unless they are calling for violence, death or discrimination. Genuinely speaking, we have to accept the other party no matter how different they are. No exclusion at all. This is the main grounds and anyone could come up and share their opinions and the perfect solution for the issues we have from their points of view.
Tariq: What about the current stage or phase that’s going on? I see many public personalities, information, videos on facebook under something that’s called T+…
Ahmed: T+ is, what I personally think, a very late phase. Why? Because we have ideas and we have writers, but we don’t have people who could talk to the public throughout a visual or audible platform. We were late with this step because many people from our region got there before us (Egyptians, Moroccos, Khaliji people as well). We indeed didn’t take this step as soon as we should’ve, but at the same time we were writing, holding live debates on issues and such. It is important for us to catch up with this phase because I believe that this era is dominated by visual and audible means of communication. People don’t feel like reading anymore, educating themselves, attending a lecture on something…
Tariq: Knowledge sources have changed.
Tariq: This has a huge effect on generations! Even those in our age, we find it easier to listen to something or watch something like a documentary rather than to read something.
Ahmed: I’m not against developments or the change of knowledge tastes, because this is what globalisation and the fast rate these inventions around the world are being invented and all have forced upon us. This is a package and these developments naturally come with the other good outcomes of what’s happening. You have to adapt to it. We cherish and hold onto those ancient beliefs that insist on the fact that if you don’t read books, you’re not good enough. Books are still and must remain as an available knowledge source, but why shouldn’t we develop more of that? We now have audible books and we have visuals that teach us, podcasts as well. There are many ways to-
Tariq: Get to the same point or result.
Ahmed: Not the same result, but there are many means that allow us to reach what we want, so why not? And I’m a very open person when it comes to experimenting.
Tariq: Let’s talk about the future. Five years later instead of ten… What is the ultimate life goal for you, Ahmed Elbokhari? Where do you see yourself by that time? What is it that you do? What is the project you managed to bring into life and what are the outcomes you have gained? Whether in writing, Tanweer Movement or anything you want to be related to?
Ahmed: I wish to see myself a part of a scientific project that works on finding a cure to some disease, or to be a member of a scientific team working on finding a solution for some scientific dilemma, since this is my specialty.
Tariq: Which is?
Ahmed: I’m currently working on my masters degree on nuric biology, we deal with the nuclear genetics and such fields. As for Tanweer, I hope we create a platform that reaches a bigger audience that interacts with it, for those who are apprehensive about Tanweer… I hope they understand us more. I hope we become a part of the society, and not on its margins only. To be part of the social and humanitarian structure in, not only Libya but the whole planet.
Tariq: Should we expect a third novel?
Ahmed: Yes, there is. It discusses a concept that I personally think is interesting. I believe I’ll be taking a leap with this. I hope it comes as I imagined for it to come out.
Tariq: Are you currently writing it?
Ahmed: Yes, and the I know its concept, but the writing process takes time and effort to get the details right. I’m still in the writing journey with this one.
Tariq: What is a secret you’ve discovered, since this is the third novel you write, either by writing through the method you follow or having conversation with people you respect and respect their writing style? Something that helped with your maturity level when it comes to writing or a complexity in creating characters or even the secret ingredient you have that might not be so secret, but it worked just fine with you?
Ahmed: To know what to write after several trails or experiments and in which style should you write the things you chose to write about and want people to remember you for in the future. The concepts you want to discuss and be known for discussing as a writer, and a writer realizes this after several attempts with writing and lots of thinking. You start looking at concepts and decide which ones are exciting for you and which ones aren’t your thing.
Tariq: You mean that a person should decide on a certain category and practice amongst its details until they become a professional writer in that category?
Ahmed: Exactly. Not a category to be precise, but more of a world that you create. That is what makes you a fascinating and unique writer, to create a world and play around it with its details. Many writers have done this, like Najib Mahfouz, Ibrahim Alkoni and Marquez. This was my secret, I think; to create a world that no one could create the way I did.
Tariq: Based on your own knowledge and your own interactions.
Ahmed: That and-
Tariq: Your passion as well
Ahmed: Your passion and the way you reflect it (exciting, beautiful and interesting).
Tariq: What is a book you’re currently reading?
Ahmed: I started reading Taha Hussein’s On Pre-Islamic History, and this is the second time for me to read it, but I try to read it again to understand it furthermore because I’m writing related things so I thought I should go through my old books. I’ve read many books in PDF before, and now I’m very passionate about purchasing the paper version and reread it again.
Tariq: Why did you choose this book right now? Is there a connection or was it on your list for quite a while?
Ahmed: Like I said, it’s because I’ve been looking into my old stuff because I’m already trying to understand our language crisis. He wrote something in the beginning of his book: “I know that what I’ve written in this book is out of the ordinary”-
Tariq: This is an introduction?
Ahmed: Yes, “And I know that what I’ve said would bother many of you, but I have to say it”
Tariq: It’s very exciting!
Ahmed: Yes! This book makes you realize that this issue isn’t by anyhow modern. People have always tried to break the ordinaries, but it always has consequences.
Tariq: The popular will doesn’t allow that.
Ahmed: Indeed! He had lots of enemies, was expelled from his university and many other issues occurred because of this book. There was also an unedited version of the book where some parts were cut off by the office control and such. If you’re going to say something out of the ordinary, you’ll have to face lots of hardships.
Tariq: There is this thing that even after five years, I still cannot accept it. “You’re a migrant living in a country of immigration” is a part of an identity. Did this affect your writing? The way you analyze and look at things? The issues you used to think of back in Libya, are they gone? Or is there another way of looking at things? What did this add to your new identity?
Ahmed: This is a new chapter of my life, indeed. A whole new world for me! It’s like you’re playing a game and you unlocked a new level! No matter the ideas you previously had on the society you’re going to live with or its people and their ideologies, it’s still not the same as moving into that society and live within them, talk with their language and interact with them.
Tariq: You definitely had a made an idea on those people before you came here, what changed now that you did?
Ahmed: I feel like I’m more understanding towards things. I understand all points of view now. It’s not like I was minimizing issues or such, but there are many causes that aren’t as simple as they look like. Those causes are deeper and more complicated. Migration made me feel like the whole planet could be a homeland, an identity. I don’t see myself as a migrant or such. I am living with different cultures and different ideologies that could be the complete opposite.
Tariq: They live in peace, they debate and discuss it, they have activities and there is mutual respect.
Ahmed: Exactly, so you have more experience and more understanding towards stuff. If you want it to benefit you and add more, it would; while some people get nothing out of such an experience because they didn’t want to gain anything out of it, this only takes more of the person instead of him/her taking from it.
Tariq: There are some people that live here but their minds are still back in Libya.
Ahmed: Exactly, their bodies indeed are here, but their minds are still captured in a box they cannot get out of. It’s a mental thing.
Tariq: Of course. It is a decision you make.
A question I never asked before but I am curious now! Why did you come? Why did you agree to have this conversation and why did you cut all this distance from a whole other city?
Ahmed: My main reason is probably because I felt you were passionate about what you do. When you called me and asked to meet up, you didn’t act like it was just a job you want to do and that’s that. You are indeed passionate with what you work on even if it was with no outcome; you’re willing to pay for it. This passion excites me, because I already do have my own passion towards stuff, and so I felt yours and I also felt that this meeting would be more of a friendly one rather than a formal one. Something I have fun with, that’s why I came!
Tariq: Thank you, Ahmed! It is my pleasure to hear such words coming from you. Passion indeed is there and our energy is mutual. This is my own journey of discovering people I wanna know more and learn from.
Ahmed: Your questions made me think quite a lot, and thinking in an experience like yours is never a bad thing. There are many questions that made me concentrate on stuff I never really thought of consciously, but I did focus on. You could also do this shifting method and make me focus on things I never did before.
Tariq: At the same moment.
Ahmed: Yes, so I start to think of those things you shed light on; and perhaps by doing that, you changed the future, or made a whole new future.
Tariq: Do you advise me to not give my questions? Keep them a secret?
Ahmed: Which questions?
Tariq: That was this week’s episode, and I am Tariq Al Meri, your host. If you want to receive a weekly email with each week’s new episode, as well as extra information from our guests and links for anything l may have had on the episode like music, books and products, visit my website: tariqelmeri.com and press subscribe and plug in your emails. You’re all set! See you next week.